SME Model 10A Review

This turntable was a breath of fresh air in the turntable industry when it was released a decade and a half ago, giving genuinely great performance in a small size. It also provided the option of purchasing it as the 10A, which contained the superb SME Series V tonearm, rather than the armless Model 10. This deck is Steyning’s attempt to make high-quality vinyl playback affordable, providing world-class sound without the clutter of wires, suspension, separate motor units, and other accompanying ephemera. Essentially, it is designed to be the best ‘plug and play’ vinyl available.

The Model 10 is small but wonderfully constructed, measuring just 370x250x161mm and finished in a subdued satin black that will not appeal to those who like enormous swaths of gleaming metal. While some may believe that somebody spending this much money on a turntable should have something as enormous as a Michell GyroDec, others will regard the Model 10’s tiny footprint as a benefit. It may appear unassuming on an equipment rack, but when used for its intended function, it proves to be anything but.

Despite its small size, the build quality and finish are excellent. I can confidently state that I have never seen anything better done, regardless of price. Classics like Trio’s Lo-7D and Nakamichi’s TX-1000 are comparable to, but not superior than, the SME. The satin black aluminium base has the same ‘camera finish’ as the Series V tonearm, making it almost smooth to the touch. Anyone who has stripped down a Honda motorbike engine will be familiar with the way all the parts fit so precisely and slickly into everything else. By comparison, the Michell Orbe, which costs £2,000, feels far less well polished – and it’s already one of the best built in the business!

The fact that, unlike its larger 20 and 30 brethren, the SME Model 10 has no suspension makes it extremely accessible. Rather, the entire structure is supported by three massive polymer isolators with adjustable feet for quick and easy levelling. The subchassis is supported by three polymer-loaded towers (similar to Sorbothane but more malleable), and an inner platter is surrounded by a tight, square-section rubber belt driven by a crowned aluminium motor pulley. The platter is a 4.1kg aluminium disc with a sticky top surface that has been thoroughly machined. A large, bulky record clamp rests atop this, screwing into the 19mm high chrome tool steel spindle. A spiral channel in the bearing surface lifts oil to the top for optimum lubrication, and at the bottom, a tooled-steel ball sits in a bronze thrust plate, which is softer for successful seating.

The external power supply features an inbuilt quartz crystal reference that monitors the speed 120 times per revolution in a phase-locked loop configuration via an 8-bit microprocessor, and the AC synchronous motor is isolated from the subchassis by three long polymer sleeved pins. It has three speeds: 33, 45, and 78 rpm, as well as a ‘lock’ LED that illuminates when the deck achieves the desired speed. A polished stainless steel stylus guard runs up from the base and serves as a convenient place for resting the back of your hand when using the arm’s finger lift. Finally, there is a soft dust cover included.

Unless your friendly dealer will come around and do it for you, the deck will arrive in a large package and will require self-assembly. Despite being well-versed in SME Series V setup, I was able to complete it in one hour without consulting the instruction booklet, including installing and aligning the tonearm and cartridge. The Model 10’s compact size and light weight of 16kg make it simple to work on, and assembly consists of removing the transit bolt, installing the arm and cartridge, then installing the main platter and connecting the power supply. There are only a few adjustments on the turntable itself.

There’s no need to make excuses for the Model 10’s small size; this is a turntable that can compete in performance and price with anything, big or small. Its primary quality is clarity; for example, it makes a GyroDec sound incredibly warm and opaque. When you consider that the Gyro performs the same trick on most other turntables (often at four times the price), you can see how transparent the Model 10A is. I’d say it’s the cleanest, clearest device on the market, pound for pound. The midband on the Series V tonearm was incredible in certain ways, with an astonishing capacity to get right to the back of the mix, open it up, and toss the nuances out at you like lead instruments. Importantly, when it did send out all that information, it did it in a manner that was both orderly and graceful, rather than being thrown right in your face.

The SME Model 10 has a fantastic sense of scale, which is the next crucial feature. Rather than pushing everything out around the plane of the speakers, the SME can hang the recorded acoustic way back, if necessary, and still hear all the way through it. Lead instruments in the mix, such as lead vocals, on the other hand, project comfortably ahead of the loudspeakers. In comparison to the Gyro, the SME was significantly more dimensional from front to back, but not from side to side. The Orbe and Gyro, in my opinion, have one of, if not the most, expansive (left to right) soundstages in the industry. Although the SME produced a confident left-to-right image, it lacked the Michell’s width. The upshot was a significantly darker, albeit not quite as expansive, sound.

The Model 10 isn’t a warm, euphonic deck by any measure of the imagination, but it’s also not clinical. Rather, we’ve returned to the crystalline clarity that just cuts through the muck and tells you what’s on the record. Although the Linn LP12SE and Michell GyroDec are both warmer than the SME, the SME is neither cold nor light. Rather, it allows you to assess each individual instrument in the mix without danger of being judged favorably. Because the SME makes no editorial decisions regarding an instrument’s tone, it has a beautifully diverse pallet of colors.

As a result, we have a crystal-clear device with ample soundstaging and a detailed and tightly framed stereo image within. So, what about the SME’s rhythmic and dynamic abilities? Once again, you were dead on. The groove’s highly modulated sections don’t cause the deck to wobble rhythmically, and it offers the sense of ultimate control. The massive meaty drum sounds on Roxy Music’s Avalon were a treat to hear through my system, sounding wonderfully powerful and assured, and the SME Model 10 really caught dramatic swings when called upon to do so.

It’s a very accomplished rhythmically – it’s a lively and engaging performer, to the point where you wonder why some people think the Series V tonearm is emotionally uncommitted, but the Model isn’t the most gushingly expressive sounding turntable. The obvious contrast is the (much more expensive) Linn LP12SE, which got a better handle on the ‘feel’ of UB40’s King than the SME. The SME provided an incredible, almost ‘infrared’ exposition of everything going on in the mix, whilst the LP12 simply undid its top button and began to boogie. Surprisingly, the Michell GyroDec was only slightly less rhythmically infectious than the Linn, leaving the SME Model 10 as the most straightforward and, truth be told, sharp sounding.

Overall, the SME is a dizzyingly high-resolution device with no visible flaws and an abundance of good features. The way it scrapes out the core structure of the recorded sound and hands it to you in such a meticulous way is tremendously obvious, dimensional, and nearly ‘architectural.’ It’s tonally neutral, although it can also be warm or chilly, depending on the situation (i.e. recording). It’s a little looser in the bass than the Michells, but that doesn’t distract from the overall listening experience. It also doesn’t have the Michells’ supernaturally broad imaging, but it’s still a genuinely wonderful object to listen to and look at.